Imagine being ExxonMobil’s CEO, and you have a problem. Independent scientists overwhelmingly agree that consumption of your company’s products produces gases that cause average global temperatures to rise. Your goal is to discredit the scientists. But if news reports say that ExxonMobil is doing the discrediting, it will be recognized as an obvious party with an interest and regarded skeptically. The solution: fund think tanks that will faithfully express the views of the world’s largest oil company as their own. ExxonMobil’s hand will be well hidden; indeed, the company will be a source so anonymous that news organizations will not even call it one.
The solution has roots going back nearly 30 years, as documented by Chris Mooney in a superb investigative report on the huge “disinformation campaign” waged by antiregulatory think tanks against the scientific consensus about the causes of global warming. Mooney explains in the May/June issue of Mother Jones magazine how in a 1977 Wall Street Journal op-ed “the influential neoconservative Irving Kristol memorably counseled that ‘corporate philanthropy should not be, and cannot be, disinterested,’ but should serve as a means ‘to shape or reshape the climate of public opinion.’”
The success of a propaganda campaign such as ExxonMobil’s depends heavily, of course, on the cooperation— or complicity—of news organizations. Specifically, they must treat the think tanks as if they are independent, neutral, scientifically qualified, even scholarly. Unfortunately, too many news organizations have obliged too often. More bluntly, they have—knowingly and willfully—misled their readers, viewers and listeners time after time, year after year. And to the benefit not just of ExxonMobil, but also to the satisfaction of other funders of antiregulatory think tanks, such as tobacco companies, pharmaceutical houses, motor-vehicle manufacturers, and foundations funded by corporations and right-wing ideologues.
Why Transparency Matters
No matter where think tanks are on the political spectrum, news organizations are duty-bound to signal clearly when funding sources may bias them. Take the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). In December, The Nation reported that “multinationals like Philip Morris, Texaco, Enron and Merck … have all, at one point or another, slathered the DLC with cash. Those resources have been used to push a nakedly corporate agenda under the guise of ‘centrism’ while allowing the DLC to parrot GOP criticism of populist Democrats as far-left extremists.” Mainstream news consumers, too, need consistent alerts to such factual connections.
My primary case in point is the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). Between 2000 and 2003, Mooney disclosed, CEI “received a whopping $1,380,000 from ExxonMobil.” Yet CEI is only one of “some 40 ExxonMobil-funded organizations”— including journalism and race-based and religious groups—“that either have sought to undermine mainstream scientific findings on global climate change or have maintained affiliations with a small group of ‘skeptic’ scientists who continue to do so.” For their labors, again between 2000 and 2003, ExxonMobil gave them, by the magazine’s tally, more than $8 million. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) received $960,000. ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Lee Raymond is vice chairman of AEI. As of 2002, when CEI had a $3 million annual budget, its staff included not one scientist or health expert. Myron Ebell had a master’s degree—in economics. His title: director of global warming and international policy. Angela Logomasini had a master’s degree, too—in politics. Her title: director of risk and environmental policy. Perhaps reporters and editors will someday explain why bloated titles magically transform flacks whose degrees are in economics and politics into must-bequoted experts on global warming and the environment.
In a November 2002 story quoting Ebell on climate change, The New York Times called CEI “a private group that opposes regulatory approaches to environmental problems.” Vague and incomplete though this description was, it was better than most, and enough to send me to CEI’s Web site to find its funding sources. None was named. So I wrote then-Times Executive Editor Howell Raines to suggest that the Times become the leader in identifying financial backers of quoted think-tank “experts.”
News Editor William Borders rep lied and with extraordinary grace . My suggestion “responds to the best instinct of good reporting to tell the reader why this person might be saying these things,” Borders wrote. “I will pass your thoughts along to the responsible editors …. Whatever you can inspire us to do to make our news columns more credible indeed, more honest, is welcome.”
I guess I’m not very inspiring. In the year ending in mid-May, 10 Times articles have mentioned CEI. Five described it simply as “libertarian” and one each as “business libertarian,” a “libertarian group opposed to regulation as a solution to most environmental problems,” and a “regulatory research group.” One contained no description. One and only one muted the presumptive high-fives at CEI by hinting at why this person might be saying these things: CEI is “aligned with industry.”
Tracking the Coverage
Nine months before I contacted the Times, unbeknownst to me, Elliott Negin, who is Washington communications director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a former managing editor of American Journalism Review, and a former editor at National Public Radio, had prepared an unpublished “backgrounder.” In it, Negin commented on the “seemingly independent think tanks … [that] in effect serve as public relations arms of corporations, representing the corporate position under the guise of being neutral, albeit conservative, observers.” Negin went on to observe that “Reporters often quote spokespeople from these think tanks when covering public policy stories. But rarely, if ever, do they cite where these think tanks get their funding.” (NRDC has zero corporate funding.)
Negin’s “case in point” echoed what I’d been tracking in the coverage of CEI. “Over the last year a number of news organizations cited CEI spokesmen in stories on energy and global warming,” Negin wrote. “I found only one story … that alluded to the group’s industry connections.”
In an April 2, 2001 column, Negin pointed out, Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz wrote that “the paper’s reporters are now being told to routinely ask about funding.” Kurtz explained that the Post had “recently quoted David Ropeik of the Harvard School of Public Health’s Center for Risk Analysis as questioning a government study on the presence of pesticides and metals in American bodies. Last week, reporter David Brown wrote the school’s dean that he was ‘extremely surprised’ to learn that the center ‘is heavily funded by the chemical, pharmaceutical and pesticide industries …. It never occurred to me to ask …. I will not make that mistake again.’”
“Apparently,” Negin commented, “not all Post reporters have gotten the message. A February 6th story … referred to the ‘free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute.’ The story quoted CEI founder Fred Smith, who supports the Bush administration’s voluntary approach to reducing global warming pollution.” Negin cited similar accurate but misleading passes by other news organizations:
- CEI is “a Washington, D.C., think tank” (Charleston Daily Mail, February 12, 2002).
- CEI general counsel Sam Kazman, a foe of motor-vehicle fuel efficiency standards, is “with” CEI (substitute host Mike Barnicle on MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” January 2, 2002).
- Ebell—referring to President Clinton’s decision to create new national monuments and exclude nearly 60 million acres of national forests from development and slamming “the abuses and excesses of the Clinton years”—called the CEI “a free-market think tank that advocates limited government.” (Gannett News Service, December 31, 2001)
- Negin wrote that on December 6, 2001, The Denver Post called CEI “a conservative think tank” in reporting CEI Senior Fellow Christopher Horner’s attack on an energy plan proposed by Senate democrats. Horner was CEI’s “lead attorney” when it sued the government in 2000 and again in 2003 to prevent it from disseminating “a Clinton-era report showing the impact of climate change.” Mooney reported in Mother Jones that Horner “is paid a $60,000 annual consulting fee by CEI. In 2002, ExxonMobil explicitly earmarked $60,000 for CEI for ‘legal activities.’”
In the same time frame, in contrast, two newspapers did link CEI to industry, one explicitly.
- On February 5, 2002, Boston Globe reporter Beth Daley quoted CEI spokesman Paul Georgia—then a doctoral student in economics—as blessing President Bush’s plan “to cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget and shift enforcement from the federal level to the states.” Clearly, if implicitly, she made CEI’s primary source of funding evident by pinning on it the label “industry think tank.” “That,” Negin said, “is exactly what CEI is.”
- Nine days later The New York Times published a front-page story in which Ebell claimed that a supposedly voluntary Bush plan to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide “will actually be coercive.” Reporter Andrew Revkin called Ebell’s employer “a private group whose free-market views are frequently embraced by industry.” The implication was less clear than Daley’s.
A trend this was not. As Kurtz wrote in 2001, Washington Post reporters were expected to “routinely ask about funding.” Ask, maybe, but—with one splendid exception—not necessarily include this information in their stories. Two examples from 2004 may have earned the Post more high-fives at CEI:
- A November 6th story on new Food and Drug Administration drug-safety initiatives described the CEI as “a nonprofit public policy organization dedicated to the principle of limited government.” (Such a description might be accurate, but it is wholly misleading.)
- Last year’s heat wave in Europe was blamed for the deaths of more than 35,000 people. Nature, the highly respected scientific journal, reported that the risk of another such heat wave has more than doubled. A December 2nd Post story led with the study but then devoted nearly half its space to Ebell’s “caterwauling,” as Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) called it in a letter to the editor. The Post did “an injustice to its readers,” partly by ignoring the “shameless conflict of interest,” Lautenberg wrote. He went on to write that the story was an example of “‘he said, she said’ treatment of what reputable scientists say is one of the greatest threats to the human race. Even worse, the article countered the findings of the world’s top climate scientists by quoting an oil industry-funded economist. Such reporting is not credible, nor does it illuminate a subject of significant importance.”
Lautenberg could have saved his breath. An April 11th story headlined “Painkiller Decision Suggests Shift in FDA’s Risk-Benefit Equation” featured, high up, a statement by CEI lawyer Kazman. There wasn’t a clue given about CEI’s funders. One, the Eli Lilly & Company Foundation, had given $35,000 to CEI by 2002.
“If the statement attributed to Kazman had been attributed to Eli Lilly,” I told the Post’s Managing Editor Phil Bennett in an e-mail that included the Negin memo, “I would have no complaint; that’s journalism. But it is misleading and unfair to imply to the reader that a quoted source is independent, as today’s story does about the CEI, even if inadvertently, when the source is, in fact, not only conflicted, but long known by the Post to be conflicted.”
I received no response.
Again, it’s not just newspapers. I’m a fan of National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm show. Ebell was a guest in April. He expressed his “libertarian” views; the national audience heard not a peep about CEI’s funding. I complained in two e-mails. Only automated replies came back.
Now the splendid exception. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published information about undisputed scientific links between soaring obesity rates and death. The Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), as it calls itself, spent $600,000 on ads falsely accusing the CDC of “hype.” In April, Post reporter Caroline Mayer revealed that Philip Morris, owner of Kraft, a maker of cookies, crackers, and macaroni and cheese, had started the CCF. Its own spokesman admitted that the restaurant and food industries fund it. A May 2nd Post editorial praised the story and denounced the ads. One advertisement had filled a full page in the Post.
Let me end with a tip: Oodles of information about the funding of CEI, the AEI, and other think tanks are available from The Foundation Center (http://fdncenter.org).
Morton Mintz, a 1964 Nieman Fellow, is a senior advisor to Niemanwatchdog. org, a former long-time Washington Post reporter, and a former chairman of the Fund for Investigative Journalism.